This is another post in a year long series on practical ministry tips and tools. The following is a guest post by Ben Siburt. Ben served several years as a hospital chaplain and over a decade in full time church work, and is currently the Executive minister (think Old Testament High Priest) at the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene. He’s also a good friend and one of the more gifted people I know at entering into spaces where people are hurting:
I think it is impossible to ever carry the label of expert in the arena of hospital visitation. If you ever are in need of some humility, then spend time visiting people in the hospital. I remember several times that I would label as less than pastorally sensitive. Like the time I walked into a room of someone who was in a tragic car wreck that cost them the life of a family member and broke both of their legs and pelvis. The first phrase out of my mouth was a question and it was, “How are you doing?”
That is high quality pastoral presence and ministry, or simply a really dumb question. The look on the patient’s face told me clearly it was option B. My list of blunders and times of picking the wrong thing to say could fill weeks and weeks of this blog. I spent a summer working as a chaplain intern in Houston’s Medical Center and 5 years as an intern and part-time chaplain at Abilene’s Hendrick Hospital. My ten years in full-time church ministry has seen many hospital rooms. Most recently I speak as a family member who just completed a three-year journey of watching my dad die of cancer.
Jonathan has already provided great truth about this poignant aspect of ministry, and so I will add a few additional truths that hopefully are helpful.
1. Presence Not Perfection
As we begin this short discussion on hospital visitation the first foundational truth to accept is that perfection in these situations is a myth, and yet the mistakes we will make can never keep us from going in those rooms and serving as living reminders of God’s presence in the brokenness and suffering of our world. Let yourself off the hook regarding pastoral perfection. One of the holy aspects of the call to ministry is that we are invited into holy ground moments, so show up. You cannot always be there so facilitate others being there when you cannot.
2. Holy Ground Requires Holy Manners
I remember entering a hospital room of a family who had just lost their 38 year-old Father to a sudden heart attack. In the midst of great tragedy the family minister was in the room and kept making jokes because he was so uncomfortable. I thought, “Who let Balaam’s donkey in here?” Easter reminds us that Death and Evil will not win the war, but there are battles that they win or seem to win. In these moments the presence of God is so strong as a gift and reminder to us that His promises are true and that the tomb is empty. So when God shows up and the ground is holy, don’t allow your insecurity to be a distraction to God’s work in the room. Speak only when necessary, listen, reflect and justify the feelings of the family, read scripture, hold hands, and pray short prayers that point to eternal truths and honor the loss in the room.
3. Short Visits are Heaven in the Midst of Hell
When people are dealing with the journey of a long illness it is like a war, and they are shell shocked and frazzled. They need to see the minister, but it does not need to be a long visit to be meaningful. In our own journey we were in Dallas for a month or more with my dad when he was close to death the first time. The best word for his experience there was hell. Eddie Sharp, a great minister and family friend who should write this blog, drove 4 hours to see dad and he stayed 5 minutes. One would think that a long trip like that would require at least an hour discussion. In his short visit he brought peace to our family, support, and we remember the gift of his presence with gratitude. Speaking with visitors takes energy, which is difficult when an illness is zapping all of it and then some. Hopefully this principal applies to your sermons as well
4. The Pain of Others Cannot Be Your Pleasure
Sometimes in ministry we get stuck in day-to-day necessary tasks of that drain our cups more than fill them. We also have public roles so every week we hear multiple and varied opinions of our abilities and how they align with individual preferences within our church. We can welcome the pastoral emergencies of other people because they make us feel like we are doing the true calling of ministry. In our times of insecurity these moments of truth and power can be what we cling to in order to find our own comfort, security, and worth. Always remember we are there as vessels of God’s Presence and not to justify our own. Our justification and calling comes from God and from the power of the gospel working through our gifts as well as our weakness. The hospital room is not about you.
5. Additional Practical Tips
• People cannot help but share their story. People will use the stories they tell you to reveal their emotional struggles and feelings. So listen carefully to the themes and repetitive comments in their conversation. One question about the true struggle you are hearing will allow them to get in touch with the core of their anxiety. Remember if you are constantly firing questions at them they can never talk.
• Bring a bible and have helpful passages marked. There is a reason Psalm 23 is read all the time in these situations because it is a vital truth that sustains. 2 Cor. 1 and the God of All Comfort works well too. Reading can be a blessing for people. You can always ask them what you want them to read as well.
• The same is true about prayers. Nothing wrong with having prayers that you work on for different situations you will face. Don’t read them off a page, but know general themes and truths before entering the room.
• Take cards with you to leave with a nurse or in the room if they are sleeping or busy so that they know you stopped by.
• Don’t always ask if you need anything. Perceive possible needs and meet those. When my dad was in hospice an elder and his wife brought soup one night and just left it with us. They were there 2 minutes, but that soup was a blessing, as we stayed up all night with dad in his last hours. Another example is when a high school girl in our church was involved in a car accident a member of our church went to her room and washed her hair and helped with her make-up and it truly lifted her spirits. People don’t always know what they need. Don’t be pushy but think about it and ask others who have walked the journey what is helpful. Another great idea is to bring a basket with magazines, snacks, puzzles, etc.
I believe that through the cross God entered into the suffering of the world to redeem it. As followers of Jesus , who are called to take up our crosses and follow him, we do the same thing and enter into the suffering of the world to stand courageously and say, “you are not alone,” and “the day is coming when the sting of death will be no more.”